Plush toys are known for their soft, irresistible fabrics that kids can’t help but snuggle. “Soft” and “irresistible” aren’t adjectives you’d usually associate with plastic bottles, but it’s becoming the new norm to make plush toys out of recycled materials — bottles included.

Similar to the rest of the toy industry, many plush manufacturers are embracing sustainable packaging and materials as a way to be more eco-friendly and teach kids about the health and the future of the planet. Taking it one step further than just using an eco-friendly hangtag, several companies have turned to repurposing plastic objects to make plush fabrics — in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the softness and cuddliness that kids expect.

“With increased societal awareness about such things as waste, climate change, and caring for the environment, our customers are looking for more sustainable options in all areas of their lives,” says Headstart CEO Andrew Hendy. “Sustainability in toys is as important as in any other industry — we all need to be thinking about playing our part.”

With more consumer interest, it’s up to manufacturers and retailers to manage demand. Plush manufacturer Wild Republic kicked off eco-friendly initiatives years ago by removing single-use plastics and phthalates from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) toys. Now, the company uses soy ink hangtags, biodegradable packaging, and a recyclable filling in its plush toys.

The Wild Republic team isn’t the only one pivoting to using all eco-friendly materials. Headstart’s ultra-soft Resoftables line, which launched this April, includes 14-inch plush characters that are each made of 11 reusable plastic bottles. The Petting Zoo also uses biodegradable materials for its stuffing and main textiles.

EcoKins Sloth, from Wild Republic

“It’s sustainable, and it’s a no-brainer. It’s something we can do technically and in a way that’s pleasing to the consumer without incurring a very high cost, … and there’s just no downside,” says JoRoy Lizewski, vice president at The Petting Zoo. “Why wouldn’t we do something that is sustainable and creates less waste? It’s good for our society, our planet, and
for the consumer. It’s good for everybody, so it’s the responsible thing to do.”

Bottles to Bears

Transforming used plastic bottles into plush is a detailed, complex process. At The Petting Zoo, the company washes and melts finely shredded bottles into a super-fine fiber that then goes into the plush’s stuffing or the main fabric body, Lizewski explains. In addition, the company has switched to using recyclable silicate pellets for the beans inside the plush, rather than plastic PVC pieces that are typically used. While recycled plastic bottles and recycled materials make up the toy’s DNA, it still ends up as a soft plush toy.

“You don’t feel any compromise. It’s not that you pick it up and you’re like, ‘Oh, I get it, it’s recycled. I can tell,’’’ Lizewski says. “You can’t tell. That’s the beauty of it. It just took the right time and the right technology to get it right. We’re not asking the consumer to compromise.”

A Better Planet is Worth the Cost

Substituting for all eco-friendly materials isn’t the most financially friendly option when there are cheaper plastic materials out there, but for these plush companies, the reduced environmental impact is worth any extra cost. It can be a matter of absorbing the extra costs internally to make sure customers still have affordable access to eco-friendly toys.

“The process to renovate a line to eco-friendly materials is costly,” Wild Republic Vice President of Sales and Operations Melissa Klubnik explains. “We do not pass these costs onto our customers or the consumers. Our profits win through the increase in sales a line [sees thanks to the] eco-movement driven by the customers.”

These plush manufacturers also see the move to eco-friendly toys as an opportunity to teach kids how their choices make a difference. For Wild Republic, it’s also a chance to show kids how their decisions can impact the animals they adore and want to protect.

“First and foremost, as a company, we live our promise to the planet, and our actions show employees, customers, and consumers our true mission of preserving habitats for the beautiful animals our line represents,” Klubnik says. “The Ecokins program is overperforming compared to past plush line launches, and Wild Republic as a company is over-indexing the category due to our partnerships with like-minded, eco-conscious partners.”

Educated consumers are aware of the ethical weight of their purchases and the danger the planet is in, and they seek out products that don’t compromise those core ideals and values.

“We’re able to do it, and the consumer wants it,” Lizewski says. “That’s the beautiful part: that they’re educated and they value it. It’s a perfect fit.”

Doing One’s Part

With growing customer demand for sustainability, it becomes increasingly appealing for retailers to keep products that fit that bill on store shelves.

“We seem to stick with the companies that have a focus on sustainability, have a focus on safety, and have a focus on high-quality [toys], and let their price follow what it takes to achieve that,” says Brice Elvington, owner of Toy Shop Florence in Florence, South Carolina.

Other retailers across the board have similarly seen a growth in the demand of sustainable plush. According to Wesley Dunlap, owner of Timeless Toys in Harrisonburg, Virginia, more customers are asking for eco-friendly products and materials at his local shop, something he attributes to their increasing awareness of the health of the planet.

“I think, as a society, the environment and the amount of waste is forefront in our minds,” Dunlap says. “… We cannot continue to use and toss products as [we did in] the past few decades. Taking small steps to make water bottles into plush animals is just one small way of helping the environment.”

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2020 issue of the Toy Book.

Pictured up top: Headstart’s Resoftables

A look at some of the hottest plush of 2020!

AURORA WORLD introduces Shoulderkins for kids ages 3 and up. The plush character is magnetic and sits on kids’ shoulders as they move. A magnet on the bottom of the plush animal connects to the fabric-covered, metal base.

Palm Pals can fit in the palm of kids’ hands. The lightly stuffed plush pal can be held and squished easily. There are 15 characters in the range.

GUND has introduced the Tinkle Crinkle Collection for babies. The plush assortment includes lovies, activity toys, rattles, plush animals, and balls with bright fabrics and embroidered details. The collection features a variety of characters, including bears, hedgehogs, and caterpillars.

The 12- or 18-inch Kai Bear plush comes in a modern style and will be available this spring. The bear has an oversized head, embroidered paw pads, and a beige muzzle.

YOTTOY has a new plush line inspired by The Busy World of Richard Scarry books. The toys capture author Richard Scarry’s signature characters in soft fabrics and bright colors, and also feature wooden wheels and clear-plastic headlights. The range includes Huckle Cat, Lowly Worm, and Bananas Gorilla characters seated in colorful cars with working wheels.

ISCREAM will debut Furry Sea Creatures Stuffed Animal Collections this spring. This plush assortment includes a range of ocean animals, including jellyfish, starfish, and seahorses. The characters are made of furry, fleece fabric and are designed for kids ages 5 and up.

SNUGGLE GLOVE has launched its new, patented Snuggle Glove pillow that sits on kids’ hands. On the stomach, there is a built-in pocket that kids can put their hand in to move and carry the plush pillow. Snuggle Glove is available in panda, husky, and unikitty designs.

STEIFF expanded its Soft Cuddly Friends line with Dixi Triceratops. Designed for babies, this handmade, plush dinosaur features the company’s trademark “button in ear.”

The Little Elephant with Story Book is a white elephant made of soft fabric and loose stuffing. It comes with an illustrated, anniversary storybook.

VTECH will introduce the Explore & Crawl Elephant this fall. The soft, plush animal provides babies ages 6 months and up with sensory stimulation through its flappy ears, light-up star, multiple textures, and bright patterns. Babies can press any button on the elephant to get it moving, and then crawl after it. When babies press other buttons, the toy will ask them to identify colors and numbers. The elephant plays more than 45 songs, melodies, sounds, and phrases.

MGA ENTERTAINMENT introduced the Little Bum Wiggling Wheels on the Bus for babies ages 9 months and up. The Buster the Bus character sings the popular “Little Baby Bum Wheels on the Bus” song when kids squeeze it. Kids can give it another squeeze to activate additional dance moves and wiggles.

Na! Na! Na! Surprise expands with Na! Na! Na! Surprise Series 2 with a two-in-one surprise for kids to unbox. The package features a balloon that pops to reveal a fashion doll. Series 2 includes six new, soft dolls that each come with a pom-pom purse.

BEVERLY HILLS TEDDY BEAR CO. expands its Tiny Tukkins line with the Tiny Tukkins Playset. Big sister and baby sibling character plush toys fit inside a colorful, compact playset and come in a range of themes. Each set comes with two characters, removable clothes for each, soft bedding, a crib, and three play accessories. The line also includes the Tiny Tukkins Play House and the Tiny Tukkins Playcrib.

Kids can collect photo-realistic Wild Alive plush animals that are inspired by wild creatures. Available this August, the plush toys are made from a soft, bouncy fabric.

HORIZON GROUP USA introduced Story Magic Unicorn Dream Dollhouse this March for kids ages 4 and up. The set includes a plush unicorn tucked inside a wooden dollhouse. Kids can create their own story about the unicorn by filling in its birth certificate with 3D stickers and a starry garland.

MANHATTAN TOY CO.’s new Velveteen Dino Collection is made for babies ages 1 and up. The set includes four colorful dinosaurs that have squeezable bodies, velvet fabric,
and weighted feet.

Benny the Blue Footed Booby features striking eyes; a plump, stuffed body; and velvety soft, blue feet.

MOOSE TOYS’ Scruff-a-Luvs Spring Babies join its existing Scruff-a-Luvs line. The babies arrive as small balls of matted fur in baby pet carriers. Kids can groom the plush into a fluffy and furry bunny, duckling, or lamb. Each Spring Baby comes with a comb, a pacifier, and a heart-shaped clip.

Best Mate Bluey is a jumbo-sized plush dog based on the animated Disney character. Designed for kids ages 3 and up, it will be available in August.

LEAPFROG will launch the LeapFrog Speak & Learn Puppy this fall for babies ages 12 months and up. Bailey the Speak & Learn Puppy responds as kids press buttons on his collar and paws to activate head movements, ear-flapping, and real-time responses.

Buttons in two different modes activate a variety of sounds and content to teach kids about letters and numbers.

LITTLE MEDICAL SCHOOL has debuted the How to Be a Great Sibling Kit. The box includes several hands-on, educational activities that are designed for big brothers and sisters to help prepare for new baby siblings. The “Classroom in a Box” kit can be used again and again.

HABA has launched Snug Up Doll Till for babies ages 18 months and up. The doll has a soft body for kids to snuggle.

The Noah the Elephant plush has a squeaking effect that fosters kids’ fine motor skills and reflexive clutching. A Nelly the Elephant plush makes a sweet rattling sound as kids play.

PILLOW PETS unveiled the Glittery Unicorn Pillow Pet. The convertible pillow features glittery-star fabric, a brushable mane and tail, and a decorative bow.

Sunny Sloth and Chewbacca pillows are also available. Both convert from a plush character into a pillow, as well.

COMFY CRITTERS offers wearable stuffed animals that transform from a plush character into a hooded blanket and a pillow. The soft, fleece wearable plush is designed for kids ages 2 and up. There are currently characters based on PAW Patrol, PJ Masks, unicorns, and sharks.

The Care Bears Medium Plush from BASIC FUN! will launch this summer based on the popular franchise. The bears have new stylizations; colors; and unique, embroidered details. Each plush bear comes with a Care Coin for kids to collect. There are six bears in the lineup: Cheer Bear, Grumpy Bear, Share Bear, Good Luck Bear, Funshine Bear, and Tenderheart Bear.

Kids ages 2 and up can get moving with CUDDLE BARN’s Head to Toe Tucker and Head to Wilbur. The elephant and pig plush toys play a “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” song and game.

Enchanted Wands are soft animal wands that play magical music when kids ages 3 and up wave them. The wands come in Trix Panda, Dazzle Llamacorn, and Glitz Unicorn characters.

KELLYTOY added Flip-A-Mallows to its Squishmallows line. The reversible plush characters are available in six styles of two-in-one characters. Designed for all ages, the combination plush characters are available in 5- and 12-inch sizes.

With Squishmallows Mystery Squad Blind Bags, kids can unbox a small, individually wrapped, scented Squishmallow character. The first series currently offers an assortment of six characters to collect.

Resoftables from HEADSTART is a new line of plush animals that are made from 100% recycled plastic bottles. The company’s first cost-effective, sustainable plush launches this April for all ages. The 14-inch plush characters are available as a bunny, a unicorn, a polar bear, a koala, and a teddy bear.

CEPIA is launching Cats vs. Pickles: collectible cat plush toys in the shape of pickles. Available this spring, the plush toys are designed for kids ages 4 and up. There are hundreds of cats to collect, each dressed in different themes, such as foodie cats, sweet cats, scary cats, cats with glasses, and more. There are both common and rare varieties to collect.

Nuzzy Luvs are newborn pet characters that snuggle into kids’ hands. When kids ages 4 and up pet them or whisper sweetly, the plush animals will turn their heads and respond with noises. Available this summer, there will be eight different animals to collect.

BUDSIES are custom plush toys inspired by kids’ drawings. Kids can create customized illustrations that the toy company will manufacture into a plush design.

Selfies dolls are made based on photos of people. Both plush toys are designed for kids ages 3 and up.

PLAYTIME FUN’s Love & Learn Doll is designed for kids ages 3 and up. The soft, learn-to-dress dolls teach kids dressing activities: buttons, ties, zippers, and fasteners.

The Love & Hug Rag Doll is a soft rag doll that comes wearing a colorful dress, hat, and shoes. The dolls have long yarn hair and embroidered facial details. The 36-inch doll is designed for kids ages 3 and up.

THE PUPPET CO. has added a Red Dragon puppet to its plush offerings. The soft, cuddly character has an opening on the back of its neck for kids to operate its mouth, and the neck length allows kids to easily move the puppet’s head.

WILD REPUBLIC goes eco-friendly with its EcoKins line of biodegradable plush animals. The line includes a variety of animals, such as a wolf, a red panda, a river otter, a tiger, a unicorn, a sea turtle, and an African elephant. Plush characters all have an embroidered pair of eyes and a nose, and a soft fabric body. Each 12-inch plush is made out of 16 recycled-plastic water bottles and comes with a recycled-paper hangtag.

LilKins is a miniature version of the company’s sustainable EcoKins line. The 5-inch plush animals can fit into kids’ pockets. There are eight creatures to collect, including a scarlet macaw, a big horned sheep, and a river otter.

About the author

Miranda Siwak

Miranda Siwak

Miranda Siwak is an assistant editor at Adventure Media & Events, where she writes for the Pop Insider and the Toy Insider, and also contributes to The Toy Book. When she’s not covering the latest news and trends, she can usually be found reading a good book, searching for her next DIY project, or keeping up with all of her favorite must-watch TV.